Sunday, March 23, 2008

Forty-six years of beautiful tradition: From Don Newcombe to Tuffy Rhodes

There’s an uninspiring Siena/Villanova matchup on my television. My mind wanders to the baseball, and to Japan...

Don Newcombe, the great Brooklyn Dodger who remains the only player to have won the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards, became the first big leaguer to sign with a Japanese club when he joined the Chunichi Dragons in 1962.

Larry Doby, the second black player to enter the major leagues and the second black major league manager, was the second big leaguer to sign with a Japanese club. He was a teammate of Newcombe's on the Dragons.

One of baseball’s all-time great fielders at third base, Clete Boyer, played for the Yaiyo Whales from 1972 to 1975. Boyer left America following a dispute with Atlanta Braves management regarding training methods. In Japan the 38-year-old was not allowed days off and, according to Wikipedia, the Japanese trainers, “had Boyer increase his workouts and provided him with so many vitamin injections that his arms were black and blue.” He stayed there for four seasons, so I guess he was cool with it.

Hall of Famer Goose Gossage was the closer for the Daiei Hawks in 1990. Along with Doby, Gossage is the only MLB Hall of Famer to play in Japan.

While Kevin Mitchell is best remembered in America for decapitating a cat, breaking his tooth on a frozen donut, beating up his father, and, of course, the bare-handed catch, in Japan he is remembered somewhat more fondly as the most disappointing American import ever. In 1995 Mitchell became the highest paid player in Japanese history when he signed a $4.5 million deal with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He quickly drew the ire of Japanese fans by reportedly skipping games to go out on the town and then returning to America for ten weeks during the season to seek treatment on his injured knee. During his Japanese baseball career Mitchell batted .300 in 37 games.

All-time single season save leader Bobby Thigpen played for the Daiei Hawks in 1994 and 1995, posting ERAs of 1.93 and 1.96.

Mike Greenwell signed a contract with the Hanshin Tigers. Then he flaked out and didn’t go to Japan, then he went to Japan and hurt his foot, then he started driving racecars. Somewhere in there he considered using steroids but his wife, a nurse, told him steroids are bad. While Greenwell is not held in the same disregard as Kevin Mitchell, his Japanese career was obviously a major disappointment.

Scott Cooper, who capitalized on the Great Third Baseman Famine (and the Red Sox’ lack of any legitimate all-stars) to became the worst two-time all-star in the history of baseball, signed with the Seibu Lions in 1996.

Reggie Jefferson, a favorite of mine, had a career year for the Sox in 1996, hitting .347. Unfortunately, his inability to hit lefties (.214 career average) meant he was relegated to being and platoon player and could not rack up enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title—in the end he would have finished second anyway. Jefferson played for the Seibu Lions in 2000, hitting .268 with 10 homers and 68 RBI. He went on to be an assistant baseball coach at the University of South Florida.

Arquimedez Pozo, who has the honorable distinction of owning the greatest name in Red Sox history*, played for the Yokohama BayStars in 1999.

*I’m probably selling Pozo short. Indeed, if not for Ambriox Burgos it would be fair to say that Pozo has the greatest name in baseball. Dick Pole is good for little more than eliciting giggles from children; Arquimedez Pozo is a hyrbird philosopher, explorer, Afro-Cuban musician, talking cartoon Owl. His name encompasses the totality of human history.

After spending the 1993 season wit Boston, Rob Deer joined the Hanshin Tigers where he put up typically Deerian totals in limited at-bats: .151 average with 8 home runs 79 strikeouts. Lou Merloni spent part of the the 2000 season in Japan. In 2003 Kevin Millar, current member of the Red Sox in his own mind, was headed to the Chunichi Dragons before Theo snatched him up and caused an international kerfuffle. Gabe Kapler hated his Japan experience so much he valiantly returned to Boston in mid-season only to rupture his Achilles tendon while rounding second base on a Tony Graffanino home run.

One of the more fascinating former Red Sox players to head to to Japan is Morgan Burkhart. He put up absurd numbers in 1998 while playing for the Richmond Roosters of the Frontier League. How about .404/.557/.861 with 36 home runs and 96 RBI. He had a fleeting chance to prove himself in the majors on a bad Boston team. I remember him as a lumpy looking switch hitter with some pop, nothing more. In reviewing Burkhart's major league productivity, I believe I located the worst starting lineup in Boston Red Sox history. And ah ha! look at that, the Red Sox starter that day was none other than Tomokazu Ohka, the first Japanese player to join the Red Sox. Anyway, Burkhart goes to Japan in 2002. Just the type of player you expect to mash across the Pacific, right? Well, it didn't really work out that way: .214/.293/.437 with 9 home runs in 126 at-bats for the Daiei Hawks.

While Tomo Ohka was the first Japanese native to join the Red Sox, he was not the first Sox from a Japanese ball club. There was (at least) one before him. The much ballyhooed Dominican pitcher Robinson Checo was signed by Boston after retiring from the Hiroshima team that refused to give him his release. He pitched in a total of 16 games over the course of his three-year major league career. It should also be noted that 2004 post-season here Dave Roberts is a native of Japan.

Like Checo, Alfonso Soriano began his career playing in Japan. Cecil Fielder, Orestes Destrade, and Julio Franco are included in the bunch who started in America, went to Japan and returned to America better (or in Franco's case younger) than before.

Three players, Tuffy Rhodes, Tyrone Woods and Alex Cabrera , whose careers in America were of little consequence, have gone on to pile up historic power numbers in Japan. Rhodes and Cabrera each tied Sadaharu Oh's single season home run record of 55. Neither of them broke the mark because Japanese pitchers refused to throw them strikes. Jerks.

OK, Butler-Tennessee is looking like it's gonna have a exciting finish. Gotta go.

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